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It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damn mess I ever saw.—Lyndon Johnson, to McGeorge Bundy, December 1963, as quoted by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Leadership in Turbulent Times, p. 339

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The Foreign Policy Establishment is tied on knots about the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, after he failed to convince President Trump not to withdraw from Syria. The president actually finds himself on about the same ground that President Obama occupied when he resisted sending troops, but did, five years ago. Irony abounds. They both faced the same dilemma in Afghanistan. And Lyndon Johnson, as quoted above, saw what he was getting into, knew he shouldn’t, but felt he had to.

Now that we’re in, how do we get out?

We haven’t had a war since WWII where practically everyone agreed that we had to fight and had to win, costs be damned. And yet we have had numerous armed interventions in out-of-the-way places where people disagreed about the wisdom of going in . It was usually about blocking the Soviets, or the Chinese, or most recently, radical Islamists such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS.

Military action usually came after the failure of plausibly deniable covert interventions. Vietnam was the most prominent case: military intervention started under Eisenhower, gained strength under Kennedy, and was, as Johnson discovered, unstoppable by late 1963. The long, bloody ordeal only ended with our defeat in 1975.

With the end of the draft and going to an all-volunteer force, never again would we fight wars with casualty rates in the tens of thousands. Whereas 58,000 troops died in Vietnam, only 2,200 have died so far in Afghanistan.

Every major postwar US military intervention has been stalemated at best, defeated at worst. Sending in the troops almost always turns out to have been a bad idea.

Trump articulates the straightforward isolationist point of view: we need to take care of our own interests and not get involved in other people’s fights. If we’re already involved, we should get out.

General Mattis disagrees:

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My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

This is classic Foreign Policy Establishment. There is no senior official left in this administration who represents that view. Trump the isolationist is unrestrained. Hence the Establishment is worried.

The American Left has also been skeptical of foreign interventions. The Left sees American imperialism imposing itself on weak peoples struggling for autonomy. Virtually every major US intervention has attempted to defeat a popularly supported movement whose only sin was to oppose US foreign policy.

Every major postwar US military intervention has been stalemated at best, defeated at worst. Sending in the troops almost always turns out to have been a bad idea.

But, once in, pulling out isn’t usually a good solution, as Johnson saw only too well, and as Trump will perhaps learn in Syria. When the British tried to control Afghanistan in the 19th century, they understood that their only choice was to hang on as long as they could. Getting out would just guarantee an outcome they didn’t want.

The order of the world at any given time, the values and priorities that dominate, will always be set by the powerful countries. We have had, since WWII, a world order that is consistent with our dominant values and interests (capitalism and democracy) because we have been the most powerful country and have been willing to use that power. The Left points to our frequent abuse of our power (as in Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.). We could be far more consistent and responsible in our advocacy for democracy and social justice.

But if we followed the isolationist prescription, withdrawing from the attempt to shape the world, we would soon find the world being shaped in much less favorable ways by the likes of China or Russia—or even ISIS.

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We cannot escape the responsibilities of power. May we use it well, but we have to use it.

John Peeler